CHOOSING AN EFFECTIVE RESEARCH TOPIC Kevin Klipfel, Information Literacy Coordinator, California State University, Chico. [email protected]
The First Step: Researching Your Topic
It may sound strange, but the first step when doing research isn’t choosing a topic. You aren’t going to say, “Okay, my topic is … birds. Let’s start searching!” Rather, from an initial, and perhaps very general, research topic area, you’re going to formulate a research question, or set of questions, that you can then investigate further. You’ll want to see what information is available to you, and then start honing in on a manageable topic from there. Thus, the first step is not to choose a topic, and then do research. The first step is to research, more specifically, what your topic even is.
What is Research?
Think of the research process as an occasion to look up something that interests you. That’s really all it is. The way that sophisticated researchers – like your professors – choose their research topics is by pursuing questions that they are passionate about. There’s no reason that you can’t do this with your schoolwork, too. The challenge is to figure out how to make your personal interests fit with the parameters of your assignment.
Narrowing Down Your Topic
You can take your initial starting point –a very basic idea of what you might write about – and ask yourself: What is it about this topic that interests me? That’s what you should write about. From there, you can begin to think about some questions you might be able to research and investigate further. And if you can’t think of anything that interests you about the topic, don’t worry; you will be able to figure something out. The following chart will be useful for helping you figure out a topic, even if you already have something in mind.
The Process of Topic Selection
Turning an Interest into a Topic
Talking with a librarian – a person who is trained in helping you develop a good research topic – would be a really good thing to do at this stage. They’ll be able to help you figure out how to take an interest you have and turn it into a manageable research topic. Now that we’ve talked about topic selection more generally, let’s consider a concrete example.
Example: Health Sciences Topic
When you get your assignment from your professor, the first thing you’ll need to do is interpret it to figure out what you need to do. What are its requirements? How can you research an authentic interest from your paper prompt? Let’s suppose your paper prompt is as follows:
The purpose of this assignment is to teach you to do research at the college level. In this paper you will research one recent research finding (published within the last 5 years) relating to student health, and write a 3-5 page essay discussing your findings, using well-researched sources as evidence. Use your research to make a recommendation to the university health center about how they can use your research to improve student services.
Interpreting Your Assignment
This paper requires you to perform at least the following four research skills: 1.
Select a researchable topic about a new scientific breakthrough relating to student health. 2. Find reliable information about that topic 3. Synthesize your research into a 3-5 page paper. 4. Apply your research to make an evidence-based recommendation.
In this module we’ll focus primarily on the first skill, selecting a researchable topic.
Developing Research Questions
Now when I read this topic, right away I started thinking about how, in college, I just never got enough sleep. So I just thought well … maybe that’s what I’ll write about … how college students don’t get enough sleep. But how can I turn that into a researchable topic? Let’s go back to our flow chart:
What about this topic interests you? What is your potential topic? I think what interests me about this is like … why college students don’t sleep very much and what the consequences are for their schoolwork.
Lack of sleep in college students.
Tentative topic: The causes of lack of sleep in college students and its consequences for academic performance.
Now I’ve got a topic that I can begin searching in the library databases, one that I can keep refining, depending on the sources I find available in the library. I’m off to a really great start.
I Don’t Know What To Write About!
But what if it seems like this health sciences topic just holds no appeal to you whatsoever? What should you do then? For those of us who may have a harder time figuring out how to make our schoolwork conform to our personal interests, this portion of the flow chart will be helpful: I’m not sure what I want to write about…
Brainstorming Interests What are three things you are passionate about? Note: They do NOT have to be class-related
1. Philosophy 2. Fashion 3. Tennis
Here are some random personal interests of mine that I wrote down: I majored in philosophy in college; I think too much about what I’m going to wear; and I like to play tennis. But how can I turn any of these things into a research paper about health and college students?! I can just do the same exercise that we did before.
What about this topic interests you? What is your potential topic? Well … I was really interested in a class I took on Zen in college. I know it’s supposed to reduce stress. Maybe I could write about that.
Tentative topic: Whether meditation can help college students reduce stress.
Now I’ve got a topic that I can begin searching in the library databases, one that I can keep refining depending on the sources I find available in the library. And, if the research says meditation helps students reduce stress, maybe my recommendation can be that the health center should offer meditation classes for stressed out students during exam time.
What is your potential topic?
What about this topic interests you?
Fashion. Well … lots of things. Thinking about the paper requirements, maybe I could think about … how thinking about fashion impacts college student's self images.
How on earth can I write about this within the parameters of my assignment?!
Tentative topic: The impact of fashion and the media on body image and selfesteem among college students.
There’s so many ways you could go here, depending on your interests. But you have enough to go on to search the library for research on your topic. And your initial searches may turn up something that interests you about this topic that you’d never even have initially thought of. That happens all the time.
Narrowing Down a Manageable Topic
Once you start looking at the research that’s out there on your topic, you’ll be able to narrow down and refine your topic even further, until you carve out a topic that will work for you in the amount of space you have to write your paper. But remember to let your initial interest drive your searching of the scholarly materials in the library: this will help you not get lost when searching all the stuff that’s out there, and help you remember what’s relevant.
Contact a Librarian
And if you’re having any trouble, don’t forget to contact a librarian: we’re more than happy to help!
For questions about this module, or how to incorporate this module into specific courses, contact: Kevin Klipfel, Information Literacy Coordinator, California State University, Chico. Contact: [email protected]